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Co-Authored by

Olufemi Vaughan
Former Wilson Center
Public Policy Scholar
Suraiya Zubair Banu
Scholar Research
MusliM WoMens Rights in noRtheRn nigeRia
APRIL 2014
his piece reveals how interlocking historical, social, political, and
religious issues are infuencing the formulation and implementation
of policies on gender and Islam in Northern Nigeria.
The Nigerian Sharia crisis, with its layered
and complicated processes, reveals contending
perspectives, thoughts, and debates on
governance and politics in contemporary
Nigerian society. Significantly, this complex
process is contested among Northern
Nigerian Muslims themselves not to
mention the fierce contestations between
Northern Nigerian Muslims and Northern
non-Muslims, confrontations in the Middle
Belt states with its significant Christian
population, and endless struggles between
Northern Muslims and Southern Christians
complicating the meaning of gender and
generation, history and mythology, and state
and society. Although these processes and
their subjective narratives are susceptible to
various forms of cultural essentialisms and
reifications of traditions, they also engage
discourses of power in important ways. At
any rate, while mindful of liberal thought,
these discourses of cultural affirmation
and resistance to patriarchy are a powerful
medium for the rationalization of power in
Nigerias troubled nation-state.
Northern Nigeria historically was a region
comprised of Hausa kingdoms, or city-states.
From 18041808, Islamic scholar Usman dan
Fodio led a successful Fulani jihad against the
Hausa city-states in todays Northern Nigeria.
This jihad initiated the transformation
thereafter of the poleis into Islamic societies.
Fodios establishment of the Caliphate,
or Islamic empire, was built on the existing
political and socio-economic structures already
in place. However, it also brought new legal and
political institutions in the form of a federation
between a Caliphate based in Sokoto, Fodios
hometown, and new emirates to transform the
old Hausa political and social structures. Since
the establishment of this Hausa-Fulani Muslim
political system in the nineteenth century,
northern Nigerian has become the largest
and most influential Islamic tradition in sub-
Saharan Africa.
Recent troubles in northern Nigeria caused
by Islamic fundamentalists have led many to
question the role of this critical region in Africas
most populous nation. One subject in particular
that generates controversy is womens rights
under Islamic law. Te expansion of Sharia law
in twelve states in Northern Nigeria between
1999 and 2001 sent a wave of anxiety through
human rights activists worldwide, and stoked
inter-religious conficts in the region. Critics
argue that women are the most negatively
afected by expanded Islamic laws, restricted by
patriarchal values and given unequal rights and
representation within the legal system. While
analysts have explored various aspects of this
on-going crisis, they have generally ignored
the critical role of Northern Nigerian Muslim
womens organizations challenge the negative
impact of expand Sharia on the condition of
women and girls in northern Nigeria. In this
paper, we will analyze the critical role that
Muslim womens organizations play in the
countrys current Sharia crisis of Nigerias current
democratic system.
Islamic, northern Nigerian feminism that
we see at work today tackling the impacts of
Sharia law in the twelve states that employ
it is not an entirely new creation. Womens
rights movements in Hausa-speaking Nigeria
have been present before the establishment
of the Caliphate. This rich history gives
Muslim women from the North a voice that
is distinct from Western feminist movements
and sometimes contrary to them. However, the
struggle to combine their numerous identities
female, Muslim, Hausa-Fulani, and Nigerian
within the constraints of a deeply patriarchal
society has led to splintering in the movement.
Research on pre-Caliphate Hausaland has
shown that women were active members of their
societies, both politically and economically.
Jeroma Barkow and Joseph Greenberg use
data on modern non-Muslim Hausa peoples
to estimate the roles that women would
traditionally have played before Islam began to
dominate Hausa culture. Their evidence points
to free interaction between men and women,
women farming their own plots of land, and
marrying later in life and to men closer to them
the expansion of sharia
law in twelve states in
Northern Nigeria between
1999 and 2001 sent a
wave of anxiety through
human rights activists
worldwide, and stoked
inter-religious conficts in the
MusliM WoMens Rights in noRtheRn nigeRia
in age than northern Nigerian Muslim women
traditionally do. The position of women in
these traditional societies seems to have been
dictated by material necessity, rather than
religious doctrines.
Te growth of Islam in Hausaland brought with
it new beliefs about gender roles, dictated by
the words of the Quran and the teachings of the
Prophet Muhammad. Tis process started well
before the Fulani Jihad, as traders and travelers
brought teachings from the Arab world to
western Africa; it was not until the establishment
of the Caliphate that religion truly took hold
in the area. Te high rate of conversion can be
attributed, in part, to economic and political
opportunismbeing a Muslim citizen of
the Caliphate came with status and capital.
Islamic teachings were disseminated in multiple
languages, including Fulfulde, Hausa and Arabic,
and emphasized the universal applicability of
the religion to the everyday challenges of Hausa
commoners, the talakawa.
In declaring the Fulani war in 1804, Usman
dan Fodio and his followers called for the
purification of Islam against the syncretism
that was widespread in Hausa society and
preached against the abuse of power in the
courts of Hausa rulers. In keeping with well-
established traditions of the Muslim world,
Fodios numerous writings and teachings,
included women. This was also reflected in the
works of Fodios most trusted followers notably
his brother Abudulahi, his son, Mohammed
Bello (who consolidated the Caliphate), and his
daughter, Nana Asmau.
Nana Asmau was well known as an influential
Islamic scholar. During the jihad she was a
teacher to both men and women and wrote
numerous poems and didactic works in
Fulfulde, Hausa, Tamachek, and Arabic.
Although Nana Asmau was privileged, in
part by her lineage, she also acted as a role-
model and encouraged other women in the
Caliphate to pursue education and influence
in local communities. This fact is captured in
Nana Asmaus own elegies, many of which pay
tribute to the numerous women who positively
influenced their society. Despite entrenched
patriarchy since the establishment of the Sokoto
Caliphate, the works of women, such as Nana
Asmau, have inspired many Muslim women to
challenge the marginalization and oppression of
women and girls in Northern Nigerian Muslim
society. This legacy no doubt inspired the
leaders of the Muslim womens organizations
that challenged expanded Sharia in the twelve
northern Nigerian states.
However, the consequence of British
colonialism and its policy of indirect rule
from late 1800s1900s institutionalized
religious practices and strengthened Islam
in northern Nigeria. The federal structure
consolidated the rule and power of Muslim
Emirs, and missionaries were barred from
accessing Muslim areas. The added threat of
western Christian culture led to an increase in
religiosity as a means of resistance. Changes in
the economy, such as increased focus on cotton
and groundnuts are also partly responsible for
the position of women in
these traditional societies
seems to have been
dictated by material
necessity, rather than
religious doctrines.
the notable escalation in the practice of wife
seclusion, known as purdah, as women could
work from home grinding nuts or weaving. The
spread of capitalism in northern Nigeria may
also have led to more exploitation of women,
who had become dependent on their male heads
of households.
The progression from traditional Hausa
society, the rule of the Caliphate, to
colonialism and post-colonialism, sheds
some light on how certain customs and the
treatment of women has evolved in Northern
Nigeria. However, looking at this history as
a steady progression between distinct stages
obscures the fact that past practices continue
to have a powerful influence on the present.
The size of the Caliphate made it difficult for
its rulers to fully establish a purely orthodox
form of Islam, partly because of the ease
with which these beliefs could be combined
with Islamic teachings. The fusion between
traditional Hausa culture and Islam is not
constant across all practices or social classes. In
some cases Islam has clearly dominated, such
as the practice of wearing full hijab; whereas
in other cases, traditional non-Islamic customs
have prevailed, as seen with divorce and child
custody. Here it is important to note that the
dichotomy is not between feminist-friendly
Hausa norms, and patriarchal Islamic ones,
as they are both predominantly patriarchal in
nature and have consequently led to a variety
of mechanisms for women to exercise their
power in the domains available to them.
Nigerias CurreNt Sharia
for WomeNs rights
The exercise of power by the Northern
Nigerian states pushing for expanded Sharia
law in 1999 was controversial. This historic
development took place immediately after the
fall of military regimes centered in the Hausa-
speaking and Islamic Northern states, an event
perceived by some analysts as a challenge to the
authority of the new democratic government
led by Olusegun Obasanjo, a retired military
general and Yoruban Christian from the
Southwest. The politics of Sharia plunged
the country into political and constitutional
crisis. This has had serious implications for the
countrys stability, revealing deep structural
imbalance that had taken root in the Nigerian
state and society.
Whatever the underlying factors of ongoing
religious conflict in the country may be,
the regional passing of new Islamic laws
undermined womens rightsan essential
engine for Nigerias development, governance
and democracy. Nevertheless, the Nigerian
Constitution does not preclude the twelve
northern state governments from granting
Sharia courts the power to adjudicate criminal
Whatever the underlying
factors of ongoing religious
confict in the country
may be, the regional
passing of new islamic
laws undermined womens
rights an essential engine
for nigerias development,
governance and
MusliM WoMens Rights in noRtheRn nigeRia
used arguments based on Sharia procedure to
appeal the sentences.
The unconventional strategies adopted by the
leaders of these Muslim women rights groups
have surprised Nigerian liberals, feminists
and Islamists alike. While the womens groups
remain committed to using the Nigerian
Constitution with its strong common law roots
and ratification of universal human rights
conventions, they have embraced Sharia law as
an essential part of Muslim culture, adopting
sophisticated interpretations of complicated
religious texts from which Sharia is derived
to successfully defend their clients. In their
political and legal activities, these activists
consciously draw from a tradition of Hausa
and Fulani women that has been inspired by
progressive Northern Muslim movements, such
as Northern Elements Peoples Union and the
Peoples Redemption Party, that consistently
advocated for universal free primary education
and the provision of essential social services for
the masses of poor people in emirate society,
including girls and women.
The use of Islamic arguments shows Nigeria
and the world how women can advance their
cause within an Islamic society. Furthermore, it
gives these women a localized legitimacy they
cases, and did not restrict their authority
over criminal cases. Moreover, with apparent
popular support, the twelve northern state
governors contend that their Sharia law
policy reflects the spirit of Nigerias nascent
democratic transition.
Besides political context, the role of clerical
authority is notable as well. The interpretation
and implementation of Sharia law is currently
in the hands of a few male scholars and social
leaders, as well as judges and lawyers who
may not be completely familiar with the
complex rules and procedures. The guidelines
put forward in the Quran and Sunnah are
not enough in themselves to act as a fully
functioning legal system. Ayesha Imam,
who gave an address at the Wilson Center in
September 2003, explains that Sharia law is
not divine, but merely religious, meaning that
a large amount of interpretation, and therefore
contextualization, is needed to create a workable
system. Different schools of Islamic thought
do interpret the scripture in a variety of ways,
and this can have a considerable effect on its
implications for women.
Reinterpretation has actually been utilized by
Muslim womens rights activists to fight against
some of the perceived injustices that have been
inflicted on Muslim women, particularly those
from low income, uneducated backgrounds.
This method of activism can be seen clearly in
the cases of Safiyatu Husseini of Sokoto and
Amina Lawal of Katsina, both of whom were
convicted of adultery (a case of zinaone
of the most serious under Islamic law) and
sentenced to death by stoning during the Sharia
crisis from 19992003. In both of these cases,
Muslim women activists backed by activists of
all faiths, both nationally and internationally,
the unconventional
strategies adopted by the
leaders of these Muslim
women rights groups have
surprised nigerian liberals,
feminists and islamists.
would have lacked if they had armed themselves
solely with secular Western feminist and
liberal criticisms. Yet lingering fears of colonial
impositions on northern Nigerian culture as
well as a predominantly conservative outlook
have made it difficult for activists to integrate
their religious, cultural and political identities.
As a result, Muslim womens rights activists
continue to face perceptions of feminism,
liberalism, and secularism as a negative western
influence. Muslim men and scholars sometimes
still associate empowered women with vice and
the breakdown of societal structures such as the
family. According to Bilkisu Yusuf, a prominent
activist and journalist, womens organizations
have been accused of undermining age-old
Hausa-Fulani Muslim values.
Various organizations have used a diverse set of
tactics to break this perceived barrier between
their role as activists and their cultural identities.
Te Federation of Muslim Womens Associations
(FOMWAN) stresses its Islamic beliefs and
values, and uses this as a platform to frame
statements about controversial issues such as
family planning. Additionally, FOMWAN does
not use the title feminist, unlike BAOBAB, an
organization that grew from women lawyers and
legal activists dealing with Islamic law in Nigeria.
Other splits in the womens rights movement
come from social divisions, such as class. Te
women of the El Zakzaky Islamic movement
accused FOMWAN of being funded by male
government ofcials. Te divided nature of the
womens rights movement is a natural outcome
of the complex situation they have been forced
to deal with and the debate this creates is in
many ways valuable in itself. However, it has
also slowed the progress these women have made
legally and politically. A united voice is needed to
push forward the concerns not only of northern
Nigerian women, but women all across Nigeria
Te intermingling of traditional Hausa culture,
conservative Islamic values and progressive western
beliefs has led to a womens rights movement
that uses innovative ways to tackle the problem
of a clash of civilizations on a small, but vitally
important scale. If the movement progresses,
it may be a model of interest for policy makers
who struggle to bridge the gap between diferent
cultures to create institutions that are respectful
of diferences in beliefs while protecting human
rights. At the very least, progress by Northern
Muslim womens rights movements is a crucial
weapon in the fght against terrorism and confict
in Northern Nigeria. Te women behind the
struggle, historically as well as today, deserve to
be recognized and commended for their eforts.
Indeed, any sustained progressive promotion of
the full citizenship rights of women and girls in
Northern Nigeria must not only insist on universal
free primary education for all children, but must
further support and empower these imaginative
Northern Nigerian Muslim womens organization.
MusliM WoMens Rights in noRtheRn nigeRia
Dr. olufemi VaughaN
PubliC PoliCy sCholar
Olufemi Vaughan was a Public
Policy Scholar at Te Wilson
Center from January to April
2013. Vaughan is the Geofrey
Canada Professor for Africana
Studies and History at Bowdoin
College, Brunswick, Maine. He
was also Director of the Africana Studies Program
at Bowdoin. Vaughan came to Bowdoin College
from Stony Brook University where he was a
professor of Africana Studies and History,
associate dean of the Graduate School, and
associate provost. He is the author and editor of
eight books, including the award-winning book
Nigerian Chiefs: Traditional Power in Modern
Politics, 1890s1990s (2000), forty scholarly
articles, and many reviews. He has been awarded
several major professional awards, including a
Woodrow Wilson fellowship, SUNY Chancellors
Award for Excellence in Teaching, and the
Distinguished Scholars Award from the
Association of Tird World Studies. Femi
Vaughan was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria.
suraiya Zubair baNu
strategy CoNsultaNt oN
Suraiya Zubair Banu graduated
from the University of Oxford in
2012 with a degree in Politics,
Philosophy and Economics. She
spent six months as a research
assistant at the Woodrow Wilson
Center in Washington, DC,
where she focused on the politics, history and
sociology of sub-Saharan Africa. Suraiya has lived
in Germany, Nigeria and the UK, and is
currently based in DC working as a strategy
consultant on Africa and the Middle East.
Page 1 photo: arne hoel / World Bank
Photo iD: hoel_100913_495
september 13, 2010
Women of takalafiya-lapai village (niger state) are beneficiaries of nigerias Fadama ii project.
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